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Responding to the Threat of Organized Crime to Wildlife and People

A response to Rosaleen Duffy by Michael Painter, Director, Conservation and the Quality of Human Life Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

International conservation organizations have responded to the expansion of globally organized wildlife crime by attempting to promote more effective law enforcement at all levels of the international trade chain for illegal wildlife products. Concern that an emphasis on wildlife crime risks militarizing conservation efforts, and creating situations where the need for stronger law enforcement could be invoked as cover for repressive actions against local people, has been thoughtfully articulated in a recent contribution, by Professor Rosaleen Duffy, here on Just Conservation. While some of the specific issues she raises need to be considered in a broader context, the main point of her article is a valid one. Conservation organizations seeking to address the threat of organized crime to wildlife and people have the responsibility to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the rights of people affected by efforts to halt organized poaching.

Rosaleen Duffy’s comments on the linkages between poaching, wildlife trafficking and organized crime raise important issues that merit discussion in the conservation, development and human rights communities. Her central point, that the involvement of organized crime in wildlife trade, poses grave threats to the wellbeing of people living in areas where poaching of commercially valuable species occurs is correct. She is also correct that, in contexts where government institutions are weak, corruption is a problem, and people enjoy few protections of their human rights, there is a real danger that initiatives taken in the name of more effective law enforcement can provide cover for repressive actions that actually help entrench criminal activity and corruption. In these settings, it is incumbent on conservation organizations to meet our responsibilities to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the rights and livelihoods of people affected by the anti-poaching activities that we support. At the same time, for the discussion to be productive, several points of clarification are in order.

Professor Duffy’s characterization of conservation organizations as being on a “war footing” may suggest to some that emphasizing law enforcement in areas where poaching occurs is the primary response of conservation organizations to the presence of organized crime. Organized criminal elements and associated corruption are present at all levels of the trade chain for illegal wildlife products. The presence of organized crime certainly has given greater urgency to efforts to strengthen the management of protected areas and improve the training, equipment and working conditions of park guards. However, these activities are long-standing, and respond to chronic needs, which exist independently of the growth of organized crime. Protected area authorities typically are among the weakest and most under-resourced agencies of weak and under-resourced governments, even as they may be the only representatives of national authority that isolated rural people regularly encounter.  Building the capacity of protected area authorities to do their jobs in a competent consistent manner, with rangers trained, paid, fed and housed appropriately as professionals doing a difficult and risky job, recognized for achievement and held accountable for inappropriate behavior, is a critical part of institution building, if isolated rural areas are to experience sound, fair governance. The expanded presence of organized crime adds a new dimension to this work, but is not the sole driver of efforts to strengthen protected area administration or professionalize park guards.

In order to be an effective response to organized crime, improved law enforcement in the areas where poaching occurs must be complemented by addressing the demand for wildlife products, and the ability of criminal organizations to operate, throughout the illegal trade chain, including consumer markets in developed countries. For example, WCS has worked hard to support initiatives such as the recent bans on ivory sales in the U.S. states of New York and New Jersey, and is working to convince the U.S. Congress not to interfere with the efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban commercial trade in ivory. One dimension of this effort is to reduce consumer demand by informing people here about the impacts of the ivory trade on wildlife and the people who live in the areas where elephants are poached. Another is a law enforcement dimension, which seeks to make it more difficult to use legal ivory sales as cover to launder illegal ivory.  
Returning to the areas where poaching occurs, one of the biggest impacts of the growth in organized, commercial-scale poaching has been the increase in insecurity it has created for the people living in those areas. This manifests itself in violence by gangs of armed men, new opportunities for corruption by government officials, and increasing willingness of local people to engage in acts of desperation in the face of chronic injustice and the futility of their efforts to improve their quality of life. In some cases, the growth of organized crime has been facilitated by the institutional weakness that has also contributed to the granting of forest and mining concessions in areas that historically have been managed by local people, under customary arrangements. This growth for the most part has taken place with disregard for international standards for addressing social and environmental impacts, and free, prior and informed consent of the people affected by these activities. Where this occurs, the effect has been to make previously isolated areas more accessible to criminal activity, while extending no safeguards and protections to people in the affected areas. This increases the responsibility of conservation organizations operating in these areas to ensure that we, and the government agencies that we support, implement appropriate safeguards on behalf of both wildlife and local people.

In the case of WCS, efforts in this area include conducting human rights assessments in our long-term field programs to ensure that our actions comply with international standards, and proactively identify situations where the rights of local people could be at risk. We are also incorporating tools to monitor systematically changes in economic wellbeing and the quality of governance that people experience, and relate changes in these areas to changes in law enforcement, biodiversity, and habitat, to be clear about how our actions are affecting both people and wildlife, and the relationship of action in one area on the other.

These and other actions flow from the commitment that WCS made as a member of the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights (CIHR), to implement a set of principles intended to ensure that our work consistently reflects, and contributes to advancing international human rights standards. Through our continuing participation in CIHR, we attempt to share our experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly – with other conservation organizations, and to learn from their experiences. We hope and expect that our participation in CIHR will allow us to contribute to improving the practice of the larger conservation community as we plan and implement conservation actions. The complexity of globally organized wildlife crime, its impacts on the people living in the areas where we work, and the potential impacts of actions taken in response to the globalization of wildlife crime, underscore the importance of continually seeking to improve our practice in this area.


Rangers discuss boundaries of areas where timber harvesting is, and is not, permitted with laborers from a timber company who had mistakenly entered Cambodia's Seima Protection Forest to cut trees. Photo Credit: A.J. Lynam/WCS.

Professor Duffy cites the use of SMART software and drones as evidence of the militarization of anti-poaching efforts and potential threats to the security and wellbeing of local people. Such new technologies raise legitimate concerns about privacy, and the fact that information gathered with good intentions can be put to bad uses. These are cause for vigorous and healthy debate in countries around the world, and there is no reason this should not extend to a consideration of SMART and the use of drones as conservation tools. In this regard, the most immediate threat to the security and well-being of local people comes from the use of sophisticated weaponry by organized poaching networks. While drones and SMART constitute part of a response to this threat, they are not only used for anti-poaching, but are multipurpose management tools used to monitor encroachments, forest fires, habitat trends and other factors. It is this broader application of SMART that has led it to be adopted in 128 conservation sites, in 27 countries.

In the context of areas experiencing organized commercial poaching for international markets discussed by Professor Duffy, efforts to professionalize park rangers, reducing the dangers to which they are exposed in the course of performing their duties, and improving the quality of their interactions with local people is especially urgent, and tools like SMART and drones have important roles to play. For example, one of the benefits of using drones is that they allow rangers to exercise greater control over the conditions under which they confront poachers (e.g., to avoid walking into ambushes), in order to reduce the likelihood that efforts to enforce the law lead to violence. The reduced risk alone tends to improve the quality of interactions that rangers have with local people. Likewise, the use of SMART software allows rangers to have a better understanding of the situations that are likely to arise when they patrol in certain areas, and increases their accountability for how they go about their jobs. Professor Duffy is absolutely right that the use of these tools is not a substitute for appropriate training and pay, and, in this regard, they provide documentation that is important in building the case for better training and working conditions of rangers and the institutional strengthening of protected area authorities mentioned above.

The expanded presence of organized crime in poaching and wildlife trafficking represents an important threat to biodiversity and also to the wellbeing of local people. As Professor Duffy’s comments underscore, our response to the threat must focus on effectively protecting both.

Cover photo shows Park guards in Nigeria enter SMART data while on patrol. Photo Credit:  Rich Bergl, North Carolina Zoo/WCS.

The author thanks Elizabeth Bennett, Simon Hedges, Susan Lieberman, Alexa Montefiore, John Robinson and David Wilkie for the comments, corrections and insights contributed to this essay.